Whitney Pfeifer currently serves as a Senior Program Officer for Citizen Participation and Inclusion at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) working alongside regional teams to ensure democracy and governance programs are inclusive of citizen voices and marginalized groups.
Jossif Ezekilov is a Program Officer for Gender, Women, and Democracy at the National Democratic Institute (NDI). He focuses on supporting women and marginalized groups in overcoming barriers to their equal and active political participation.
COVID-19 is not only a global health crisis, but also a social, economic, and political shock for countries and communities around the world. The pandemic has placed acute stress on governments and civil society actors. Even as medical advancements such as vaccines provide an end in sight to the pandemic itself, its impact on global economies and democracies will be felt long after the virus’ spread is mitigated. As countries enter into recovery phases, groups are demanding that governments “build back better,” ensuring that governments and communities alike are more resilient and prepared for the next crises. It’s important to acknowledge that efforts to “build back better” after COVID-19 will not and should not be made in a vacuum, as the world must simultaneously address impending crises, such as climate change, while also confronting endemic ones such as sexism, racism, ableism, social injustice, and other forms of socioeconomic and identity-based marginalization.
Addressing such large-scale, systemic, and interlinked challenges will require states to ensure governance systems that are fully democratic, inclusive, and accountable to the voice and agency of women and marginalized communities including young people, persons with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals, ethnic and religious minorities, and Indigenous peoples. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the alternative — exclusion — has undermined the effectiveness of both immediate responses to and the long-term recovery from the pandemic. Exclusion must be purposefully and proactively countered for any efforts to build back better to be effective and sustainable.
The Disproportionate Impacts of Systemic Shocks
Systemic shocks such as natural disasters, conflict, and pandemics generally result in shrinking political space as governments move from a more consultative way of operating to a more authoritarian “command and control” position, instituting short- and medium-term changes in the political environment. Although international human rights law recognizes that in the context of officially proclaimed public emergencies some restrictions may be justified, it does not justify the alarming rate at which states seized the opportunity to close civic space and infringe on rights in the name of the COVID-19 pandemic. This shrinking space impacts all citizens, but disproportionately, further limiting women and other marginalized groups’ equal rights, including their ability to be politically active. The pandemic’s tolls and response provides a real-time illustration of this dynamic, while also highlighting the further exacerbation of existing gaps and deep-rooted discrimination present within society.
The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women, persons with disabilities, LGBTI communities, and individuals marginalized due to their race, ethnicity, age, or other aspects of their background is well documented and cannot be understated. Barriers to equitable health access, personal protective equipment, or other pandemic prevention measures have made individuals who hold any of these (or intersecting) identities more vulnerable to contract, suffer from complications that require hospitalization, and/or die from the coronavirus. Persons with disabilities have always struggled to access equitable health services, transportation, and proper water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities, but, in the time of COVID-19, this lack of access becomes life-threatening, particularly when hospitals exceed their capacity and must ration care. Women are more often on the frontlines of the pandemic response, with the WHO reporting 70% of all paid healthcare jobs are held by women, and that 50% of women’s contribution to health is unpaid.
Members of racial or ethnic minority groups have faced particular vulnerabilities to the pandemic. Systemic racism and other forms of socioeconomic discrimination have made racial and ethnic minority groups more likely to be exposed to and die from the pandemic. In the United States, Black, Hispanic, and Native American people respectively are between 2.6 and 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19. In the European Union, Roma communities are confronted with multiple barriers to COVID-19 prevention (including poverty and inadequate access to housing and proper sanitation), while also facing an increase in attacks as they are made the scapegoats for the start and spread of the virus. Persons with albinism are also being made scapegoats as carriers of the virus, experiencing additional forms of public humiliation and an increase in violent and often deadly attacks.
Widespread gender-based discrimination has increased in most countries. This has created a “shadow pandemic,” as all forms of gender-based violence have risen globally. For many women and LGBTI people, violence is already a constant threat. It is even more pronounced under a pandemic, where individuals are having to make difficult decisions between violating shelter in place orders and homelessness, or facing violence in their homes. Gender-based violence attacks are also disproportionately impacting women and girls with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities who have reported being denied access to resources and safe spaces for survivors.
The economic impacts of the pandemic also fall along the same lines. Women, young people, persons with disabilities, members of LGBTI communities, and marginalized racial or ethnic groups are often paid less, save less, hold less secure jobs, and are disproportionately employed in the informal economy and in jobs with fewer social protections. As a result, they have been severely affected by public health orders that have curtailed consumption and restricted mobility. This devastation of livelihoods is forcing many in these communities to choose between risking infection to earn enough money to pay for food and shelter or adhere to lockdown measures and go without basic necessities. And as government responses continue to exclude and discriminate in many places, the burden of service provision including food, healthcare, and shelter has fallen heavily on the shoulders of civil society organizations, forcing them to pivot away from advocacy and organizing — potentially setting their movements back for years or decades.
With schools shut, young people’s lives are particularly impacted, as educational attainment compounded by pre-pandemic challenges of attaining adequate employment are further curtailed. Girls and students with disabilities are more likely to have their education disrupted, which not only makes them more likely to struggle for decent work but also creates other life-changing impacts, such as early child marriage. School closures have also required many women to take on additional caregiving tasks due to disruptions in schooling and childcare, which further impacts their earning potential and ability to participate in political processes.
“The Tyranny of the Urgent”
Rather than addressing the complex and intersectional challenges posed by the pandemic, many governmental, institutional, and societal responses have instead exacerbated them.
This is mostly due to the lack of representation in response mechanisms and associated decision-making bodies. Male dominance of political spaces often recreates gender inequitable norms within parliaments, parties, and other political organizations. The overrepresentation of men in politics has resulted in similar patterns in pandemic task forces and other COVID-19 related bodies. It also extends beyond the political realm in many places, as the appeal of traditional patriarchal norms has increased women’s disempowerment relative to men and further entrenched beliefs that men are best suited to lead.
As with many inequalities, the pandemic simply exacerbates an already pre-existing issue. The resulting lack of diverse voices in decision making leads to a so-called ”tyranny of the urgent” approach to public policy, resulting in a deprioritization of the needs of women and other marginalized groups. Governments and civil society also often utilize a conservative social agenda during major crises – such as emphasizing women’s ‘proper’ domestic roles – leading to the withdrawal of rights that women have gained. As women are forced to retreat, so are leaders and members of other marginalized groups that are battling multi-dimensional forms of marginalization including ableism, racism, and ageism.
Rather than increasing stability, “the tyranny of the urgent” often leads to increasing autocracy, militarism, and/or heightened insecurity, which further threatens women and marginalized groups in particular, and enables the justification of human rights violations. Such dynamics also shrink the democratic space, prompting political systems to shift from a more equitable, consultative style to a “command and control” mode of operation. This is evidenced by the sustaining of pre-pandemic increases in popularity of “strongman politics” and populist movements. Despite the disastrous response to the pandemic from many populist leaders, they have nonetheless maintained popularity by upholding patriarchal norms and attacking gender equality and human rights protections. They often use disinformation campaigns to brand gender equality and the liberation of other marginalized groups as the reason behind their own negative outcomes.
Taken together, these dynamics have decreased democratic resilience and emboldened authoritarianism. The pandemic continues to disrupt political processes around the world; 73 elections have been postponed, and parliaments have suspended or limited activity. Restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression due to the pandemic also impede democratic discourse. At the same time, authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning leaders have further taken advantage of the emergency to concentrate power, push forward new anti-gender and anti-equality measures, and crackdown on civil society actors demanding accountability and transparency.
At the same time, equal and meaningful democratic participation is made more difficult than ever. Worsening inequities in financial power and time availability prevent women and other marginalized groups from engaging in politics, reinforcing long standing barriers to entry. The aforementioned disproportionate impacts on such groups, as well as the rising populism, deprioritization of human rights, and inequitable gender and social norms, all serve to curtail the right of all people to participate equally in public life.
Building Back Better
Only political processes that are reflective of citizens’ diverse experiences and accountable to the most marginalized groups will produce effective pandemic responses that mitigate, rather than deepen, social and identity-based inequalities. While the harm created by the pandemic and other global challenges endure, there is no time like the present to ensure that recovery efforts dismantle rather than recreate existing social, political, and economic inequalities and systems of oppression. It is possible to take advantage of existing and new opportunities that the structural realignment of politics that occur in post-crisis transition present, to involve women and other marginalized groups in addressing the political barriers to achieving equality and empowerment. This allows institutions, processes, and norms to be altered and shaped for a more inclusive and sustainable democratic future and resilience against future shocks.
Taking action towards this goal is no small task, and requires policies and behavior change across multiple levels. Decision-makers need to act swiftly to ensure that the pandemic does not spur a hardening of exclusionary political structures and instead reinvigorate movements for equality and rights that have been sidelined. Governments, parliaments, and civil society organizations supporting women’s, youth, disability, LGBTI, and human rights movements, must work together to support gender-informed, inclusive and intersectional responses to the recovery. This includes going beyond mere considerations of the impacts of women and marginalized groups towards strategies, budgeting, and policy agendas that place systemic reform at their core. It also means ensuring these communities are seen as experts on their lived experiences and therefore serve as a driving force behind systemic change. Investment and commitment to inclusive and participatory data collection and analysis will provide a better picture of the impacts of the pandemic and other public policy issues. The use of data that takes into account the multiple identities of individuals will ensure barriers are identified and addressed appropriately and enable activists to develop and organize around evidence-based advocacy.
The grassroots level is a good place to initiate major efforts, namely by empowering and amplifying the efforts of organizations that already do this work. Donors should prioritize flexible funding with simplified processes to reach local organizations that promote human rights and equitable political participation. These organizations should also be recognized for the assets they can contribute when seeking practical and sustainable solutions going forward. Young people, who are already running online pandemic awareness campaigns; LGBTI organizations with experience addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis; and disabled persons organizations at the forefront of advocating for rights-based approaches to public health, all need to be engaged and encouraged to share their expertise. Innovative solutions and technologies are particularly needed to address the spike in domestic violence and its impact on women’s participation in public decision-making, as well as tackle issues around accessibility and digital divides.
Changing the face of political spaces from male-dominated forums to ones that look like the populations they represent is essential to ensure an equitable post-pandemic agenda. Such efforts must go beyond skills training of individual women candidates and candidates representing marginalized groups, though this too is important. Rather, institutional changes must be promoted across all political organizations and electoral systems in order to remove barriers to participation. Legal and security measures are also needed to deter all forms of violence against women in politics and human rights defenders. Lastly, engaging men to both recognize the impacts of gender inequality and patriarchal norms on women and other marginalized groups, and work to promote change, is necessary to ensure sustainable and inclusive change within political organizations and processes.
With the sudden shift to online spaces, many of the inequalities in the offline world have been recreated online. The digital world has become a forum for disinformation, hate speech, and harassment targeting politically-active members of marginalized groups and women more specifically. Online violence against women and human rights defenders has mirrored that of the offline kind, with new types of online violence created regularly. For example, women’s rights organizations and activists have increasingly experienced “Zoombombing” where their virtual meetings are hacked into and attacked with violent language. In addition, the quick shift to online platforms highlighted the digital divides that women and marginalized groups face when engaging online. However, technology and online spaces, though creating challenges in their own right, are nonetheless important in overcoming socioeconomic and political barriers. The expanded use of technology to engage presents unique opportunities for Ministries of Information, policy-makers and civil society actors to integrate digital literacy skills in their work, take steps to understand the improvements needed for connectivity, and uphold rights to accessible information. The flexibility and information access has allowed and will continue to allow women and marginalized groups to bridge the gaps to cost and reach when participating in public life. More flexible work hours, changes in organizational culture, and the moving of many political processes online, all provide opportunities for more equitable participation, and make it clear that the persistent demands by women, persons with disabilities, and other marginalized groups were achievable all along.
The pandemic has created global disruptions and societal harms, especially for the world’s most vulnerable populations. Building back better requires a collective movement beyond a pre-pandemic status quo that, for far too many, was synonymous with marginalization and oppression. Rather, inclusive, intentional, and accountable action that works to dismantle systemic inequalities is necessary to address both the pandemic and other existential threats. Governments and citizens alike should accept nothing less.